It takes considerable effort to make Darren Aronofsky seem like a model of restraint, but Robert Siegel pulls it off in Big Fan. Siegel’s screenplay for The Wrestler insisted on beating down Mickey Rourke at every turn, but Rourke’s performance fended off the almost comically over-the-top cavalcade of bad shit. If the screenplay insisted on Rourke-as-fuck-up, the actor subverted it by conveying an inherent nobility that allowed Aronofsky to ground him in a lower-class realism rarely seen on American screens. In his debut as screenwriter and director, Siegel grinds down on, rather than grounds, his protag.
Paul (Patton Oswalt) is a parking garage attendant whose only pleasure is his nightly AM sports radio call, on which he valiantly defends the Giants against Philly fans. Paul lives in Staten Island with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), who’s understandably freaked by her son’s solitary, thirtysomething dead-end lifestyle, and responds by being a shrieking harridan. We quickly understand that Paul’s brother, Jeff (Gino Cafarelli), is no good because of his thick Guido accent, and that his wife (Serafina Fiore) is equally worthless because of her orange Real Housewives of New Jersey tan. The characterizations here aren’t noticeably richer than they are in that show: Like reality TV, everyone is exactly who they appear to be in Big Fan.
Things go massively awry when, through a series of events that involve a Times Square strip club, Paul inadvertently gets his QB idol suspended. Mental anguish ensues. Siegel wants it every which way: Paul’s a sexually inert loser with no forward motion to his life, but that’s nothing to be alarmed about because he’s perfectly harmless if undisturbed. You shouldn’t laugh at him, except when you should. Audiences are invited to congratulate themselves for not reviling Paul, as long as they keep him at arm’s length.
Flawed though it was, this year’s Observe and Report—another outsider black comedy—had the guts to present Seth Rogen’s sociopathic mall cop without excuse or rationalization; the laughs came from the gap between his scary void and the reality around him. Big Fan instead chooses to beat up its clueless center so that we’ll like him more, and then surround him with familiar stereotypes to make him look more authentic.